Another SBC “Me-Too” Story
The bomb that is the “Me-Too” movement continues to reverberate across the cultural landscape and sadly that also includes the Southern Baptist Convention. Last week Dr. Al Mohler’s extraordinary post “The Wrath of God Poured Out – The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention” highlighted the ongoing discussion within the institutions and fellowship of Southern Baptists. Dr. Paige Patterson, a Southern Baptist generational leader, has been forced out of the Presidency of Southwestern Seminary for unwise comments and counsel deemed demeaning and dangerous to women and the mishandling of a sexual assault case. And more stories continue to tumble out.
It is humbling, it is embarrassing and it is simply unacceptable for those who are called to shepherd God’s people to fail in their responsibilities due to our unwillingness to reckon with difficult things. In seeking to protect institutions, we fail people, we fail Jesus, and, ultimately, we fail those very institutions we love.
Many of us may wish we could hear no more, but that is the very attitude that betrays us in the first place. We wish to be comfortable when what we need is courage. Stories must be shared, victims deserve to be heard, and those who fail to act must be held to account. There will be more stories to come, more embarrassment to face and I have been asked to help share one story, one that hits a little too close to home.
It’s been 25 years, but the wounds are still real, wounds that were put there not only by monstrous acts but also by spiritual leaders who failed to act, who failed to protect, and who failed to expose the truth.
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law were Southern Baptist ministers serving in a small associational camp in south Alabama in the early 90’s. The camp was owned and operated by a local Baptist association. They have two daughters and both of them were sexually assaulted by the Director of Missions of that association. He was caught in the act. What made this tragedy even worse, was that he was a former SBC missionary with the International Mission Board (then Foreign Mission Board). Later evidence would reveal that the IMB had a personnel file containing allegations and evidence of numerous sexual assaults of children while he worked overseas. He was brought home and allowed to resign from the IMB. He was hired by this Baptist association in southern Alabama where he eventually used his position to gain proximity to my two nieces and violated them.
As you can imagine, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were devastated. They turned to the local associational leadership and were told to keep quiet, assured it would be handled. They turned in desperation to the leaders of the IMB wondering how they could let a monster like this walk away without a spot on his public record free to continue his wave of terrorizing the most innocent among us. Children…our children…in our churches. At every turn, they were stonewalled and treated like the enemy.
The local association told them not to go to the authorities. The IMB said they were not obligated to reveal what was in his file and that the local association had not contacted them. They wrote letters offering sympathy but denied responsibility. These parents sought help from key leaders they knew. One prominent leader told them to be careful whom they told because “we don’t want Jesus to get a black eye.” In one instance, they called the Alabama Baptist Convention for help in an unrelated ministry matter (remember they were running a Baptist camp). When the person they spoke with heard who they were, they were told that they weren’t allowed to speak with them and that they would instead have to communicate through the convention’s lawyers. They were shunned, shushed and shamed. People were afraid of lawsuits (which they never pursued), afraid of embarrassing stories, afraid of public repercussions, afraid of everything it seems except a monster violating children and the ultimate judgment of God.
In the end, they went to the police against the counsel and direction of the associational leadership. The children were too young to give enough evidence to charge the man at the time, but within the year he assaulted a 4-year-old neighbor and he was arrested. They testified and eventually this pedophile was exposed for what he had done. These things are a matter of record. They really happened. The scars are really there. They always will be.
They were violated twice and it’s hard to say which caused the deepest damage. The sexual assault, horrific to contemplate, and the silence and lack of support from denominational and pastoral leaders all of whom played a game of cover and protect, hoping it would all go away. Some bear more culpability than others, an association that didn’t do an adequate background check, IMB officials who didn’t expose a predatorial monster, convention officials who turned aside to protect the powerful instead of helping the wounded, but here is what almost no one said, “Call the police.”
This is the painful lesson of this cultural moment. Illegal acts are illegal. They are not first for the church to handle. They are not first matters of church discipline or public relations, they are criminal acts that deserve criminal prosecution. Practice these three words…call the police.
I wanted then to believe this was atypical. I have pastored Southern Baptist churches for over 30 years and my Southern Baptist roots go back generations. The people I know and love are not people who want to cover for monsters like this pedophile, and yet, these moments remind me that all too often we can fail in our responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law still love the Lord. They still love Southern Baptists. They are not bitter people. Both of their daughters, my nieces, are strong, godly women serving today in Southern Baptist ministries. One of my nieces, I’ll call her J. wanted her story told. In light of all the recent conversations, the pain had resurfaced. I’ve included her story here, told in her own words.
I am a wife and mother. I deeply love my Southern Baptist church. I went to a southern baptist university and I am currently enrolled in a Southern Baptist seminary certification program. I am also a victim of a former Southern Baptist missionary. My family, in the words of my mother, were “victimized” by significant leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention.
When I was only five I was sexually assaulted by a man who worked with my parents. I was young and I did not understand what happened to me. All I knew at the time, was that the adults around me were in turmoil. For years it haunted me. I struggled to my core with fear and as I grew it was hard to reconcile the fear with what I was told of God’s love. When I was 18, I had enough and I challenged God to make me understand. He brought to mind 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” I realized that even though I believed Jesus was Lord and that he died and was resurrected for my sins, I had kept this fear to myself. It was hidden in a secret corner of my soul where it grew and festered. God revealed this fear was preventing me from fully understanding his love. I begged God to take my fear and replace it with his love. He healed me in an instant. I have never felt so much joy, and now 12 years later I am still free from fear. This is my story and I praise God that part of my life born in pain had a joyful ending.
But it is not my parent’s story.
I entered adulthood with a fresh joy and appreciation of the sanctifying work the Spirit was doing in my life. For the first time, I was able to to talk to my parents about the past with a clear head and heart. That is when I saw their pain for the first time. My parents were devastated when I was violated. As I talked with my mom and dad, the raw emotion the memories dredged up were evident in both of them despite the years that had past. All I really remembered from that time was being hurt by that man and then questioned by the police. Their fight was so much larger than I knew. The man who hurt me was a Director of Missions (DOM) from a local Southern Baptist association. My parents reached out, seeking advice from convention leaders. They were longing for help, but were met with derision. The Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB) was aware of this man. As a result of him harming missionary children on the field for 26 years, they brought him home. My dad heard the man who hurt me, admit to having never gone more than a year without harming a child. The mission board trustees released him from employment in 1991 and made him promise to never work in ministry again. They fully knew his background and elected to keep everything in house rather than going to the police. They also were aware that he had accepted a DOM position and did nothing to alert anyone about his past because it was assumed he wouldn’t be around children in that role. Instead of the Mission Board trying to help, they were instructed by an army of lawyers to not talk to my parents. This “guidance” trickled throughout the entire institution from the convention, to the state, and then the local association. They were all told not to talk to my family. They knew we could drag them through the mud so they hid in fear. For example, my father called the state convention just to confirm a youth camp date and he was told “if you want to talk to us you need to go through our attorney.” My parents began looking for work in a new church in a different state and even those church leaders were uncomfortable at the thought of hiring my parents because of our story.
My parents were in their 20’s and to them it felt like every leader they contacted was against them. Talk about a David-versus-Goliath-like situation. I could see the pain in my parents. They had been actively ignored, ostracized, and abandoned. They were left alone to pick up the pieces of our broken life. The only reason my parents stopped pursuing the issue was because the President of the Foreign Mission board called them, against the lawyer’s advice, and promised them he was going to clean house so it would never happen again. That is all my parents wanted, for no child to ever be hurt again.
In the past few months, it has been made obvious that the corruption still runs deep. My purpose in bringing all of this to light is not because I want justice. My God will take care of that. My goal is the edification of the Southern Baptist Convention, its leaders, and its policies. The Bible makes it clear in the book of Revelation that Jesus is standing among his lampstands and he is tending to them. He will remove the ones who stop serving him. If the Convention refuses to come to its knees and repent of the abuse in its midst, God will abandon this institution. He does not need the SBC to accomplish his will.
It is a good thing the convention is beginning to address how to better protect women and provide avenues where they can actively serve the church. But we cannot forget that our children need protection from these monsters too. We cannot continue to ignore sexual sin. I am very cautious about who cares for my children. I have left churches because I did not feel my kids would be protected in its ministries. Yet when I make this choice I am treated as if I am being over protective. Abuse hinders the presentation of the gospel. We will not be able to continue to reach North America or the world if we are known for harboring rapists and allowing for cover-ups. The man who hurt me wasn’t convicted because I was afraid and lied to the police. Not a year later, he molested his four-year-old neighbor. My parents testified in his sentencing hearing and the judge did what the convention wouldn’t; he gave them justice. He never would have had the chance to hurt her or me if the convention had been responsible and reported him to the police instead of worrying about the reputation of the SBC.
So many ignored them long ago; they wondered if some would listen now. Have we learned the lessons? Sin cannot be covered. Sexual predators and pedophiles must be exposed and NEVER recycled into other ministry opportunities. Illegal acts demand a legal response.
It pains me to tell this story. Anyone who knows me knows how deeply I love Southern Baptists. But as Dr. Mohler’s article reveals, when God’s wrath is poured out on all that can truly be called evil, we must humble ourselves, confront the truth, beg for mercy, and seek righteousness at all costs.
Finally this question, is a man truly a shepherd when he allows the wolves to devour the lambs because he is afraid of the consequences of confrontation? Isn’t it the very definition of a shepherd that he stops the wolves, that he protects the sheep, and that he guards the flock? When we fail to protect the innocent because we are more interested in protecting the reputation of institutions we serve, we not only fail those very institutions, we fail the sheep and fail the Chief Shepherd.
We have failed too often. There are too many stories like this one and too many scars that have never been able to heal. Let them be told. Let us repent. Let us learn to be shepherds again. God help us.
*The institutions mentioned, the Alabama Baptist Convention and the International Mission Board, are led today by fine leaders who were not there 25 years ago. I have great regard for both institutions and have friends at both places. I am confident they would not handle the situation the same way today they did then. Dr. Jerry Rankin took over the helm of the IMB during this case. As my niece shared, he personally called my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, against lawyer’s counsel, to apologize and assure them that under his leadership processes would change. They appreciated his call very much. All they really ever wanted was for this criminal to be exposed and punished, for other children to be protected, and for our institutions to accept responsibility for holding people accountable and telling the truth. Was that really too much to ask?